First-Day Jitters: Best and Worst NBA Debut Performances

So, it’s your first day at your new dream job. You’re excited; eager to make a great first impression. Shoes are shined and tie is straight. You’ve waited for this moment your whole life. Your boss welcomes you to the office, turns on the spotlight, and points it to your face. In front of colleagues you haven’t met yet, he drops a bomb on you: “Tell us, what can you bring to the team?”

The weight of the room suddenly shifts to where you’re standing—all eyes simultaneously zooming in on the new guy, the rook, the poor soul sweating profusely in front of strangers. Then, silence. Your mind draws a blank.

“Talent.” “Friendship.” “Jokes!” Any of these would’ve been an acceptable response. Instead, the silence lingers. Your boss raises one eyebrow. Then two. Someone from the back fake coughs to break the awkwardness.

So much for making a great first impression.

If you’ve found yourself on the excruciating end of this scenario, then congratulations: you have something in common with 18-year-old Kobe Bryant.

Bryant AP

Bryant, in his first day in the office, was not at all impressive. The hype was there; Laker Nation still gushing over his 36-point performance in a Summer League game. But on the third of November, 1996, in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant was only there in spirit. Playing behind the stacked backcourt of Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, the 13th overall pick was handcuffed to the Laker bench and logged in six minutes. In those six minutes, he managed one block, one rebound, a turnover, and a foul. He got to jack up a grand total of one shot, which he missed.

His first point as an NBA player came two days later in New York, where he split his free throws. This was how Bryant—then fresh out of high school—began his first couple of days as a professional basketball player; curtailed by the lack of minutes, unimpressive, and raw.

Yet when you zoom out on his 20-year career, it’s clear that these early days were nothing but mere foreshadowing for the Mamba Mentality he would later adopt in his quest for greatness. The missed opportunities and ugly airballs fed the Black Mamba’s thirst for blood. Plus, the lowlights are great material for the haters.

Bryant isn’t alone in the elite group of first-day screw ups. Two-time MVP Steve Nash had an identical blemish on his otherwise stellar résumé, also laying a goose egg in his NBA debut in ‘96. Nash’s partner-in-crime, Dirk Nowitzki, was far from the German wunderkind he became in his debut, scoring only two points and missing on all five of his field goal attempts in ‘98.

Michael Jordan’s debut (16 points on 5 of 16 shooting; 6 rebounds; and 7 assists) in ’84 was OK, and is nowhere near the vicinity of GOAT-worthy. SNL legend Will Ferrell recently revealed in an interview that he, too, flubbed his first line in his first-ever comedy sketch. Guess what? These guys had the last laugh.

Jordan Getty

There have been great debut performances from some of the greats, of course. Wilt Chamberlain’s 43-point, 28-rebound game and Oscar Robertson’s triple double in their respective debuts were ridiculously on brand. LeBron James lived up to the hype with a 25-6-9 line in his first NBA game. Allen Iverson was the answer to the Sixers’ woes right out of the gate with a 30-point performance.

Then there are the outliers like Michael Carter-Williams, whose nine steals (to go along with 22 points, seven rebounds, and 12 assists) set a new first-game record, and Gordan Giricek, a Croatian swingman who came out of nowhere to drop 29 points on his debut.

Giricek had a wild ride to the NBA; drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 1999, then team-hopping from Dallas to San Antonio before eventually landing in Memphis to play in his first NBA minutes—three long years after the draft. But at least he was able to turn downtime into a story worth telling. In 2001, he signed with CSKA Moscow, a Russian ball club that competed in the Euroleague. Giricek was an efficient shooter, and he shot the lights out in that 2001-2002 season, averaging 23 points per game.

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The day Giricek waited for finally came on the thirtieth of October, 2002, his first day in the NBA. Giricek introduced himself to the league by hitting 10 of his 13 attempts (4 of 6 from the three-point line) off the bench. From a historical standpoint, it was one of the NBA’s best debut performances, only behind Willie Anderson’s 30 in ’88; Iverson’s 30 in ’96; and Odom’s 30 in ‘99, as per Basketball Reference. The only other rookie to breach the 30-point mark in the last 20 plus years was Isiah Thomas, who scored 31.

But unlike Thomas, Giricek’s rookie season never really took off, scoring 25 points or more in only three occasions. He could never top the four three-pointers he made in his debut. He peaked way too early and in doing so, did a reverse Bryant, wherein the debut game was the entire story.

Drafted by the Mavericks in the second round and stashed by the Spurs as a spare tire for their other European prospect Manu Ginobili, the expectations were low for Giricek. He was a 25-year-old basketball player in Croatia whose NBA hopes had dimmed. But he made it. And on the first day at his new dream job, he took a shot at it with everything he got. He waited for that moment his whole life. So, against the Mavs—the team that drafted him then didn’t want him—Giricek basically threw all of his chips on the table and called it a day. On the first hand.

First game performances, generally, regardless of results, are more of an anomaly than a sign of potential. In Bryant’s case, the disappointment became fuel to the fire. For Giricek, the rare, near-perfect debut turned out to be nothing but a cheat day on his steady diet of bad games. And, whether we admit it or not, most of us live for cheat days.

Photos from Getty Images and AP Photo

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